The recent loss to Ghana has opened the flood gate to speculation about the future of team U.S.A. As U.S. Soccer officials try to determine the future of Bob Bradley; U.S soccer supporters and also those who try to determine where the next generation of U.S. soccer players will come from.
While soccer is the sport of choice internationally; in the United States it is far from being the most popular sport. Soccer does not possess the pastime of baseball, nor the hard hitting of football or hockey, nor the athletes of basketball. Usually soccer isn’t on during primetime but rather denigrated to an obscure channel early in the morning. The U.S does have a professional league, the MLS, though despite attempts to bring superstars to play soccer in America (David Beckham with the Los Angeles Galaxy and rumors of Thierry Henry coming to the Red Bulls) the league still has not seen popularity to compete with other sports.
“The league is horrible,” stated Pascal Louis, a senior at Beacon High School, who was named to the all city squad by the New York Daily news and won PSAL outstanding player of 2010. Pascal will be playing soccer at Cornell next year. “Soccer is not big enough here that players at their prime really want to come here. If they could find a way to create a better and more successful league, then soccer will get to where it needs to be.” What the average soccer fan may not be aware of is that of the three players on the United States team who scored a goal in the world cup, only one, Landon Donovan, plays for an MLS team. Of the twenty three man U.S roster in South Africa, only four players currently play on an MLS teams. The other players head off to more “elite” professional leagues in Spain, England, and Italy.
Since the lack of skill in the MLS keeps many average Americans away from soccer for three years, the World Cup does bring soccer fever to the United States.
“I think it’s great walking down the street and seeing bars and restaurants overflowing with people watching a game–it isn’t important to me who’s playing,” said Elsa Hardy, a senior at Beacon High School, who was named to the New York Post’s All Manhattan team, and looks to extend her career at Wesleyan next fall. “I watched the England/US game with my team and the room was split into three: one side was wearing England jerseys, one side was wearing goofy US hats and in the middle were the people who didn’t care either way, they just wanted to watch a good game (I was in the latter group).”
While the World Cup fever died down with the loss the United States in the knockout stages, some say that the fever is only temporary and ultimately does little to improve or expand soccer in the states.
“I hate to say this, but I think it’s a bit of a fad,” claims Beacon senior Luke Carey. “There is always something new and happening, and right now its soccer, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who aren’t serious about it, but for most people it’s a passing fancy.” Its statements like these which prompt some to question if World Cup fever in America is soccer related or just a showing of support for a country. “I tend to hibernate and wake up every 4 years for the world cup; in short I live for the cup,” stated Louis.
One obstacle standing between soccer reaching a football or baseball level of popularity in America is that soccer has to compete with other sports which are being played at an extremely high level. MLB, NBA, NFL, and the NHL are considered to be the “Premier league” of their respective sports leagues. The NHL, NBA, and MLB are leagues where international players come to America to play in the elite league, similar to soccer players who play in the English Premier league. “It’s difficult because the US is already sports obsessed. Baseball, football and basketball are already SO popular, I’m not sure Americans would be able to fit another sport on their plates,” Hardy said. The same cannot be true for the MLS where many players come towards the end of the careers, and the younger players who do come to play in the MLS do not come with the same potential as young players who play internationally.
Another potential obstacle is that the game of soccer is far different than any other sport in America. “(Soccer) is just not as popular because it doesn’t have a huge “POW” moment,” says Carey. “Baseball’s got the homerun, the stolen base, football has the 50 yard touchdown and tackles, basketball has the dunk, and hockey has goals and checks. Soccer takes a while to get things moving, even a fast paced game takes a while to set up a goal, or even a chance.” In a typical baseball game one is expecting to see around five total runs scored, in basketball one team can score over a hundred points, and football games teams are scoring forty points on a regular basis. In soccer, scoring three goals is considered to be a lot of goals. On the other hand, many games can end in a tie, at zero all. In addition, a soccer game is continuous ninety minutes (plus stoppage time) making it significantly longer than any other time regulated game.
“I think the U.S lacks the patience for the beautiful game,” stated Louis. “U.S hasn’t really understood the art of soccer. The religion here in the U.S is baseball or football, but for all the other nations, soccer is the national pastime.”
One obstacle that coaches, players, and U.S soccer officials can attempt to eliminate is the quality of U.S soccer players. While Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Tim Howard are all good players, none are on the level of a Kaka, Lionel Messi, or Wayne Rooney. More importantly, since non World Cup soccer is mostly ignored in the U.S it’s hard to have American soccer role models. U.S soccer and other organizations host tons of camps and soccer schools to find and locate top tier talent; however one potential strong source for finding new talent comes from not only soccer skills but also soccer heritage. “I have really been playing soccer since I was about 4. Soccer in Haiti is a religion, so there wasn’t much problem there,” stated Louis. “The U.S is lucky in the sense that they will be getting kids of immigrants from countries with great soccer roots. So be ready for a U.S national team full of Hispanic heritage.” The prime example of this is New Jersey native Giuseppe Rossi, who plays for Villarreal in Spain, where his parents are Italian immigrants and moved to America. Unfortunately for U.S soccer, Rossi chose to honor his Italian roots and make a commitment to potentially play for the Italian national team (he was left off the Italian World Cup roster).
Another strong pipeline for potential U.S players is from the youth leagues. Soccer is easily picked up at a young age by most kids. The American Youth Soccer Organization currently has over six hundred thousand children and teenagers who play in their leagues across the country. In addition, as children grow the opportunity to join elite travel teams and play in competitive high school games also allows soccer players to develop even more.
The ultimate success of soccer in America depends on the ability to have people watch, appreciate, and most of all, play the game. However, there is much debate over whose job it is to influence the spread of the beautiful game. Some would say that it comes down to those in the soccer spotlight to push the sport which they play.
“It’s going to take some serious advertising and provoking,” Hardy stated. “The success of the national team would really help, so I think they are definitely responsible for stepping up. The American professional leagues, both men’s and women’s, both have a role to play as well. I think the success of the national team would definitely increase awareness of soccer (as silly as that sounds), which would increase popularity and support.”
During the World Cup, there have been no shortage of commercials glorifying soccer. Some companies have created commercials lasting several minutes long. While the commercials do a fantastic job at making soccer look amazing, most of these commercials did not appear until around the start of the World Cup, and most likely, many of these commercials will be gone after the events in South Africa are over.
Others respect the idea of promoting soccer, but feel it ultimately has to come down to people wanting to play soccer. “People should get into soccer because they want to,” stated Carey. Soccer is not a difficult game to play, go to most parks and you’re sure to find people kicking the ball around, playing in a game without any implications.
In the end, despite multi million dollar advertisements from Nike, despite success or failure of the World Cup, and despite the competition from other sports, the success of U.S soccer rests on the ability of Americans to pick up a ball and play.
By Eric Saltzman